Create a Culture of Urgency


Aaron Nack is Chief Operations Officer at Ahead, the #2-ranked company on CRN’s Fast Growth 2011 list.

If I had to write a formula for a VAR’s success, I would say it’s 5 percent the products you select, and 95 percent the people you hire. That emphasis on employees makes it crucial to have a framework for the culture you want to create and maintain, especially when you’re in hyper-growth mode. At Ahead, we define our culture by core operating principles, including one that’s built into our corporate DNA: “Do what you say you’re going to do—and do it NOW.”

Procrastination is part of human nature and essentially stems from a fear of failure. But what if you knew that the ultimate failure would be failing to take action? You’d be free to do what you needed to do. Empowerment and courage are at the core of our culture. We reward daring and decisive actions, creating a sense of urgency. Yes, there may be “mistakes,” but when your employees are as highly skilled and experienced as ours, the only serious mistake is inaction based on fear.

Ahead’s revenue have exploded from $3 million to $121 million in four years on the strength of factors such as next-generation data center technologies and a client-centric organizational structure that eliminates traditional product silos. Admittedly, given the seismic impact of technologies such as cloud and virtualization that form the pillars of our business, some of that growth is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

But none of that would matter if we didn’t also treat every sales inquiry, implementation and bump in the road as a #1 priority – even if we have a few dozen #1 priorities every day. Responding quickly and communicating regularly creates an environment that shows you care. That not only closes business but helps create a client for life.

For us, that means delivering a statement of work within 24 to 36 hours of determining the prospect’s business requirements instead of waiting two or three days. Calling a client back immediately instead of two or three hours later. Pulling out all the stops to meet a deadline or address a problem.

In one case, for example, we shrunk a four- to six-month project down to four weeks for a client that had to accelerate a planned data center move and upgrade because they acquired a new business. Our project management team moved mountains to make it happen because – like everyone at Ahead – it understood that saying no was not an option.

We have created that culture of urgency in several ways, including:

  • Devising a rigorous screening process including ‘homework’ for job applicants, as well as hiring employees who have worked in environments with a similar philosophy.

  • Holding weekly company meetings in which team members share client stories and are rewarded – either verbally, with small on-the-spot bonuses or both – for above-and-beyond performance.

  • Structuring the company horizontally rather than hierarchically so managers all the way up to the COO hear about problems at the same time as the sales, engineering and services delivery teams and jump in to help.

    Steps like those help light a fire under our employees and keep it lit 24x7. That may be only one factor in nurturing growth, but it’s hard to imagine succeeding without it.

    Being responsive to customers' needs doesn't have to take all the wind out of employees' sails, as Ahead's Human Resources director noted in his blog last week: Have Fun While You Grow.